FUTURE BRITISH DIPLOMACY AND MILITARY STRATEGY
THE BRITISH ARMY
Pipers of the Khyber Rifles
Pakistan's Army proudly blends tradition from the British Raj with the clothes of the North West Frontier. We may find their generals' reluctance to sort out the Afghan Taliban a source of frustration - but there's a lot we can relearn from the Pakistan Army and the Frontier Corps.
A picture is worth a thousand words. The pipers mix tartan with traditional salwar kameez, long shirts and loose trousers and the famous sandals - you can walk all day over any country in chaplis, what's more a locally made pair lasts forever.
Anyone who has ever had the privilege of living among these men and their families knows that faith, courage, loyalty, pride with modesty, decency, kindness and warmth are qualities they enjoy in abundance. That's only the first lesson but it's the most important.
LEARNING FROM HISTORY
Britain's Army needs to ask itself radical questions. After suffering repeated cuts its leaders struggle to keep a single brigade fighting in a remote and backward province of a third world country in South West Asia. This despite withdrawal from Iraq and reinforcement by a stronger American formation. Further cuts will make the Army too weak for long operational deployments. To understand the root causes of the Army's difficulties one must look at how the British Army coped with emergencies during the last century.
Presently politicians and the media focus on the Army because our soldiers in Afghanistan face the most daily combat pressure. Have no elusions. Should the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force confront challenges on a similar scale both would encounter exactly the same difficulty - an inadequate force struggling to overcome the enemy at tactical level, thereby failing with its strategic mission.
One can argue that the senior generals' lack of imagination combined with ignorant and gullible politicians has severely damaged the Royal Navy and the RAF. To the point where Britain is no longer able to defend itself and its trade, nor trusted as a reliable friend.
For most of the last century British infantry battalions were about 1000 strong reflecting a tried and tested structure from two world wars and garrison service in many lands throughout the Commonwealth and Empire. The same formula that brought the infantry through the advance, retreat, advance in August 1914 served just as well nearly 40 years later when similar swings were also followed by a trench stalemate across the Korean peninsular. After the Korean War infantry doctrine focussed largely on the NATO Central Front and supporting the Royal Armoured Corps in countering the threat from Group Soviet Forces Germany. Yet our infantry battalions also performed colonial duties in many places and were drawn into an insurgency on the island of Cyprus - they are still there as part of the UN peace-keeping force. Infantry battalions also served in the Far East where we provided a brigade for the SEATO Alliance, protected Brunei and modern Malaysia, garrisoned Hong Kong.
With four rifle companies of four platoons each forty strong and plenty of support weapons - in those days held as a somewhat large platoon of headquarters company - these were powerful formations able to take and inflict punishment. Eight hundred men of the Gloucestershire Regiment in April 1951 held a hill for three days, repeatedly driving off attacks by elements of the 63rd Chinese Army - a heroic feat that allowed the rest of 29 Commonwealth Brigade and flanking UN Forces to withdraw behind the Imjin River. What's more the Glosters fought with the old bolt action Lee Enfield rifle. Before the battle the Chinese 63rd Army consisted of 27,000 men in three divisions and 29 Brigade was about 4000 strong with four battalions ( one was Belgian ) plus armour and artillery. The brigade lost over 1000 men but the 63rd Chinese Army lost 10,000 killed before they were pulled from the line.
Not for a second would one presume to tell our generals how to fight tactically. That is not the purpose of these essays on diplomatic and defence strategy. I will maintain - after experience of large wars - that small battalions with three low strength companies are wholly inadequate to cope with the strains and stresses of daily combat.
Some will object that in the 1950s we had National Service. We did indeed. National Service was good for disciplining the nation's male youth but placed a huge training burden on the Army. Although the other two services took National Servicemen, the Royal Navy took very few and the RAF remained much less dependent on conscripts than the Army for its personnel. So many resources were required within the Army to train huge numbers of reluctant soldiers that conscription eventually outlived its value. The great military historian, Sir Basil Liddell-Hart, calculated that the National Service Army of 330,000 struggled to put three divisions in the field - while a volunteer army of professionals about 165,000 strong could put six and a half divisions in the field. By 1961 the government was finally ready to take his advice - inevitably combined with a reduction in the reserve Territorial Army, which of course, made no sense whatsoever.
Today we face a similar watershed. British governments got away with the Falklands and Gulf War One because the Armed Forces still had the strength in depth demanded by NATO for the Cold War. Since then Tony Blair went to war in Iraq and Afghanistan while his Chancellor, Gordon Brown, continued with peacetime funding of the Armed Forces. Leaks in the Daily Telegraph reveal exactly how difficult the Army found pulling its weight during Gulf War Two. This peacetime budget policy continues. Further drastic cuts have been made by a coalition of Notting Hill liberals - there are no Conservatives in this government - although the situation was already unsustainable.
Afghanistan is the exception that proves the rule. Unless western democracies are ready to employ imaginative and sometimes ruthless methods there will be other Afghanistans. In a nutshell, had George W Bush taken the action ( my hunch is that the idea was on the table during the days following the nine-eleven outrages ) that some people half-expected, we might not have any troops in Afghanistan. At the risk of being called Doctor Strangelove, let's take a little reality check on super power crisis management, because super powers have all the options at their disposal. After nine-eleven I would not have been entirely surprised had the White House discussed - seriously though probably briefly - whether the US Air Force dealt with Tora Bora Mountain by dropping a hydrogen bomb and changing local geography. The same goes for Kunduz Airfield - a tactical nuke would have evaporated the Taliban leadership and peons with their Pakistan ICI handlers although I accept that would not have done the River Oxus much good. In any case, plenty of air power was on hand to deal with Kunduz through conventional weapons.
On the day, the President and his Defence Secretary were much too cautious - or responsible - depending how you view the state of humanity.
Helicopters are an asset for any military task. Not much on the ground escapes the birds' eye view of this rear gunner over Afghanistan.
British generals always find change a struggle. During the nineteenth century they resisted the abolition of flogging and the great reforms that laid the foundations of Kitchener's citizen army during World War One. For much of the first half of the twentieth century they refused to give up their horses for tanks - to the despair of men like Fuller and Liddell-Hart, not to mention Winston Churchill who encouraged the invention of the tank. More recently Britain's generals refused to relinquish their heavy tanks for helicopters. Modern airmobile tactics were tested, proven and refined during the Vietnam War. Britain was not involved with the Vietnam War. Consequently the US Army - and the Australians and New Zealanders - spent a decade fighting another way. General Abe Abrams told me that the great thing about the Australian/NZ Task Force was that he could stop worrying about the Province they looked after. Contrast his words with Basra and Helmand today. Colonel John Waddy despaired of the Army leadership over thirty years ago. Little has changed. British generals fought two Gulf Wars with conventional armoured infantry tactics and now attempt the same in Afghanistan. Demands for better armoured vehicles are the generals' solution, while the enemy simply make more powerful mines. The RAF still operate troop carrying helicopters that are regarded as normal for the TO&E of a US brigade.
Raising enough soldiers for a dangerous time requires a mental reversal of the last seventy years. Despite stalwart performances from TAVR soldiers as individuals or formed companies in Iraq and Afghanistan the leadership of the Army still looks upon the TAVR as second class citizens. The scandal over slashing training for the TAVR to divert £ 20 millions towards regular recruit training is ample evidence that the present senior leadership seems no different from its predecessors. Generals must learn, before the Army changes. So long as senior officers look upon TAVR soldiers as last resort replacements instead of training and preparing TAVR formed units for combat operations, the rank and file in the Army will not change their attitude. On the contrary, the regular Army should become the core of a much larger volunteer reserve. Our professional soldiers in future must concentrate on command and leadership, strategy and logistics, specialist duties such as helicopter pilots and main battle tank crews which require intensive training, thereby opening the way for a national effort on defence.
Obviously some formations must be ready to carry out military operations at no warning. That requires standing formations such as 16 Air Assault Brigade and the Royal Marine Commando Brigade. Although, frankly, these formations could do with enough TAVR formed units to create small divisions. Most regular formations sometimes spend weeks training before operating in a combat zone. Other troops are required for garrison duties in places such as the Falkland Islands. Some of these tasks could provide TAVR formations with operational training. Through a gradual though planned change of emphasis the present line formations, in other words the majority, should convert to TAVR. This would allow the Army to cope with long haul campaigns without an enormous increase to its manpower costs.
TAVR formations cost the same as a regular formation while they are called up for active service. Operational deployments of six months require about a year of full time service for a TAVR soldier or formed unit. When resting between operational tours, however, they cost the sums required for a volunteer reserve formation - much less than for regular soldiers - nor do they require housing and feeding for themselves and dependents, nor schools for offspring. TAVR soldiers return to their homes, families, jobs. Between operations they contribute to the nation's wealth. The present TAVR is 33,000 strong and its budget £ 350 millions a year. Leaving aside equipment a TAVR with a strength of 100,000 would require a budget of roughly £ 1 billion a year and 200,000 double that sum. As the first stage I think a professional core between 50-70,000 strong backed by a TAVR around 100,000 strong is the zone where we should be looking.
Before this suggestion is ridiculed by our generals let me remind that two armies employ this system with conscripts. One fields nine strong brigades of eight infantry and armoured units of battalion size with reconnaissance, supporting artillery, engineers, signals and logistics and has more tanks than the German Army. The other fields no less than twenty-four armoured brigades, ten infantry brigades and two parachute brigades organised in over a dozen divisions. The first has not fought a war for more than 150 years but manages to keep its 200,000 troops fully trained with 4,000 regular officers and NCOs. The second has fought several major wars and never suffered a defeat although vastly outnumbered by its opponents. Both countries do this with populations of less than 8 millions. They are, of course, Switzerland and Israel.
Switching from all regular to mostly TAVR formations requires a phased programme over several years. Changes in the Law would be needed but much has been done already because of the need for comparatively small numbers of TAVR soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. The reduction in the regular pay roll would allow the Army once more to create large combat formations while affording a much better managed and funded equipment programme.
Such an expansion of combat and support formations would allow the Army to restore lost capabilities. For a start corps and divisional headquarters should be restored and thereby the ability to mount large scale operations. The present six divisions on the order of battle would become real formations rather than administration headquarters bearing famous numbers and names. Major armoured formations of brigade size could once more join the battle line and preserve a hard won expertise. Common sense suggests that British Forces in Germany should become largely TAVR formations. Professional officers and soldiers at last would benefit from a proper career structure - at present we are close to melt down in all three armed services - and consequently far fewer experienced middle rank officers and NCOs would leave the colours. Nor would their families be ground down by repeated separations during far off and frequent operational tours.
An early priority is releasing the Air Assault Brigade and the Royal Marine Commando Brigade from line duties and holding them as a strategic and tactical reserve. Elite formations are loathed and envied by the rest of the Army. Generals complain that they grab the best officers and NCOs although invariably think of them first when despatching troops for the tougher jobs such as taming Helmand. That nearly always happens but it's not the way to employ such troops. Helmand probably needed two brigades plus the Airborne or the Commando Brigade as the original strike force and then reserve - commanded by a divisional headquarters. This force, of course, would have required many more helicopters; fortunately the latter arrived with the US Marine Corps brigade. Afghanistan operations at their present level require three large brigades - one fighting, one training, one resting - for a single brigade in the combat zone. The training brigade would only need to work up full time for three or four months so a TAVR solution would provide three strong brigades for the cost of one-and-a-half professional brigades. In other words half price. Moreover, increased manpower allows a shift to much stronger battalions, thus a further move towards small divisions, formations capable of developing more than a single manoeuvre at a time.
Learning from history.
Left photo shows the Sheridan with its big gun for block house busting - very similar to the D Day mortar and petard tank employed by the Royal Engineers. Right photo shows the Scorpion tank - British - about the same vintage as the Sheridan. The Scorpion is made from aluminium and weighs 8 tons. The chassis would make an excellent start for a modern version - this one has been modified in Belgium with a 90 mm gun. A light body on wide tracks gives the Scorpion a softer footfall than an infantryman. Scorpions could travel over bogs on the Falkland Islands that the Paras found sticky going on foot.
A great idea that never got off the ground. During the 1980s Ivan Barr's AAI Corporation designed the HSVT(L) with a multi-purpose 75mm high velocity gun that could shoot through the front armour of most heavy tanks - the barrel was longer than HSVT(L). Rather like a knight of old the HSVT(L) could wear its own suit of armour for protection from heavy weapons but take it all off when facing only light weapons. Fully armoured against tough opposition the tank weighed 14 tons. Barr's company designed a two man crew version but the Army ( US Army ) wanted a tank commander - rather than a commander/gunner. So a three man version was developed but, of course, weighed 17 tons. The tank could withstand a hit by an 85mm round though used its speed - twice that of the fastest known tank - as the prime defence against big gun tanks. Barr, rightly, pointed out ' How many heavy tanks can take a hit from one of their own kind? '
Above photos show the M 8 Airborne Gun System. Although the M 8 resembles a tank it's really a modern version of the wartime assault guns deployed by the German armoured forces. Fully armoured the M 8 weighs about 20 tons - a little on the heavy side for a C 130 but well within the capability of a C 17. Only four have been built and these grudgingly released to the 82nd Airborne for testing. At least the M 8 has tracks. As a design it's nowhere near as versatile nor as punch-proof as HSVT(L) and my advise is to track down Ivan Barr and AAI.
Small divisions allow formations designed as packages around the operational task. For planning I think we should allow that apart from a headquarters such divisions would include a reconnaissance regiment, and depending on the operational task, at least four or five combat units - meaning armoured regiments or infantry battalions. The traditional ratio has merit - one armoured unit to four infantry units or vice versa. Basil Liddell-Hart was a protagonist of the thumb and fingers system - namely that an infantry battalion resembled the human hand, the support weapons company provides the thumb for the rifle companies' four fingers. Likewise a brigade's four infantry battalions were the fingers for the armoured regiment thumb. This argument was tested by the US Army many years ago with a Pentomic division where all units were broken down into five manoeuvre parts and resulted in a small division of five battle groups. Later BAOR adopted a similar concept for the armoured division during the 1980s. Eventually conservatism won but modern communications make the concept worth another look. Perhaps combinations of six or seven or eight manoeuvre units are easier to command because five units demands the most mental agility from the division commander.
Without air power NATO would need 600,000 troops rather than 150,000 in Afghanistan. Medium artillery reaches far enough to save fighter and bomber flying hours. Simple and robust direct fire weapons like the RPG 7 known as a B 40 in Vietnam are much less expensive than firing the latest guided missiles - designed to kill heavy tanks - at short range against mud walled bunkers and strong points.
Presently our brigades field a regiment of light guns with three batteries. Small divisions require a regiment of light guns with four or five batteries depending on the number of battle groups within each division. However, medium guns instead should be considered, otherwise added, plus rockets/ heavy guns if required. This gives the division a much longer reach and makes it less dependent on helicopter gun-ships and strike fighters. Air defence is not important for Afghanistan but was for both Gulf Wars and paramount during the Falklands War. It could prove essential during a conflict with a third world country equipped with modern strike aircraft. We should maintain enough reserves so that, should circumstances demand, we're ready to add a whole air defence regiment to our small divisions.
Allowing for a whole engineer regiment gives our division the capacity to absorb and move several battalion sized units. Providing electric power has become a major headache as electronics reach down to squad level. Moreover, for colonial warfare where reconstruction is pivotal, there is no such thing as too many sappers. To obtain the most from the Royal Engineers' requires drastic changes of attitude and approach at the highest political level. More below.
Signals and intelligence and battlefield management are all intricately linked these days and the question arises whether intelligence, political and language functions should combine within a reconnaissance regiment or within a signals regiment. These are the kind of structural questions which simply have not risen over the horizon in the MOD nor is there any sign of them in the reams of material churned out by every military magazine under the sun. The US Army has taken a small move in this direction with special troops battalions but even this falls far short of creating an entirely new form of multi-task signals and IT plus humint through political and language skills regiment.
Logistics, technical support and medical units again should be structured so that the assets can be structured to operational tasks.
Recruiting is costly. The Army screens over 70,000 applicants to find 14,000 suitable candidates for basic training as regular soldiers. I'm glad the Army can pick whom they want but sieving through the children of modern education in Britain is a pretty wasteful process. The quality of TAVR recruits tends to be higher since most applicants are fairly well educated people with good jobs who want to satisfy a sense of adventure by doing something useful though completely different from their daily work. Many bring civilian skills and experience of considerable value to a modern army. The Swiss Army places IT specialists in its signals battalions as a matter of common sense. Our intelligence effort should employ TAVR teams with the languages and analytical talents needed in the combat zone.
Presently with so much unemployment there is a tendency to recruit both regulars and reservists at the Job Centre but normally TAVR recruiting holds up very well providing the government of the day is seen as supportive. During the 1950s many former soldiers joined the TA and my hunch is that would happen today should we triple the volunteer reserves. Take one example. The Special Air Service was reformed after the war through raising a TA regiment based on the Artist's Rifles in London. This regiment preserved the numbers 1 and 2 of the wartime SAS regiments as 21 SAS. During the Malayan Emergency volunteers from 21 SAS willing to serve as a regular unit formed 22 SAS, the only time this has been done and the parent remained the TA regiment. Later my old friend Colonel John Waddy raised 23 SAS as a TA regiment based around Birmingham.
Another example from those days was 44 Parachute Brigade commanded by Brigadier John Frost of Arnhem fame. Throughout the brigade's officers and NCOs were veterans of Bruneval, North Africa, Sicily, D Day, Arnhem and the Rhine Crossing. One sapper in our Para Engineer Squadron was a German paratrooper veteran of their airborne assault on Crete! The brigade had pathfinders, four parachute battalions, artillery, a whole engineer regiment, signals, logistics and medical teams. The sappers, 131 Parachute Engineer Regiment, had been part of 16 Airborne Division TA before the reduction to the single 44 Parachute Brigade TA. However, the regiment was so well established that it survived intact and at more than 1000 strong, many of us regular reservists, became the largest unit drawing para' pay and annual bounty in the whole Army. In theory we supported the infantry but had the brigade been dropped in Denmark or Germany the infantry might have found themselves supporting our sabotage forays. I think we all recognised that on the large canvass we were probably expendable. All these units were recruited the length and breadth of the country - thus 4 Parachute Battalion represented Home Counties while 15 Parachute Battalion were Scots. The gunners and sappers recruited in the same way through batteries and squadrons with strong regional ties. Our headquarters was The Duke of York's in Chelsea - nowadays sold by the government and turned into a largely deserted shopping mall. I would take it back through compulsory purchase.
COLONIAL POLICE OPERATIONS
Captain Rachael Davies RE and Flight Lieutenant Josie Clegg RAF serving in Afghanistan. Josie Clegg is a regular RAF officer from Bristol. She volunteered for Afghanistan rather than the Falklands. Normally Rachael Davies studies disaster management at Teesside University. For her gap year, Rachael volunteered for active service with a combined military and civilian team who rebuilt a village school. She already had soldiering experience as a medic and worked in Sri Lanka after the tsunami struck. She is a good example of how TAVR officers and soldiers often bring the Army a valuable combination of military and civilian skills.
At World News Two you will find a brief description of the Army's current troubles. Senior army planners have to forecast trouble spots while at the same time construct a new mix of fighting powers. Small intervention divisions should form a key part of this mix, particularly strong in engineer and reconstruction assets, intelligence, political, language and training assets. This strengthening should extend beyond division HQ and the reconnaissance regiment to the battalions where intelligence, political and language skills could be given a home in a reconnaissance company. When operations began in Helmand the arrival of 16 Air Assault Brigade should have been quickly followed by another brigade structured as a modern ' colonial ' warfare formation, designed and equipped to raise a much larger Afghan force - rather like the old Frontier Scouts, ultimately created for the local government - that fights alongside the expeditionary force so that gains of ground are consolidated and pacified.
To do this, however, requires that Treasury officials cease their mindless micro-management of the defence budget and hand over authority to commanders on the spot. For example, the commander in Afghanistan should have enough funds to raise his own Afghan militia - scouts - several thousand strong and commission aid projects. The latter should be taken away from civilians and handed back to the Royal Engineers by restoring the old work services branch. Some of us remember when two Sapper warrant officers would go off for a year and build a road in a remote part of Nepal or some other distant land.
The young Winston Churchill, aged 23 years, wrote a book about the fighting along the Durand Line a century back when the Raj decided to adopt a ' Forward Policy ' and moved into the tribal region between India and Afghanistan. The original plan was to control the passes such as the Khyber from a new line running from Kandahar through Jalalabad northwards on the Afghan side of the Hindu Kush Range. Opening moves were made by political officers who knew the tribes well and understood the personalities and politics. After two years trade in the Swat Valley doubled. The losers, observed young Churchill, were the mullahs who saw their authority eroding over savage tribesmen engaged in permanent blood feuds, daily murdering each other and whose main asset was their women, by custom sold to the highest bidder. The Amir of Afghanistan played politics as well, seeking to strengthen his own position, if possible increase the Dane geld he pocketed from Delhi. The mullahs stirred up a great jihad against the infidels promising everything from the best celestial virgins to immunity from artillery shells. Thousands of tribesmen rallied to their banners. British outposts in the Swat valley were besieged. General Sir Bindon Blood and the Malakand Field Force hurried to their relief.
The old Indian Army formed brigades by building them around a single British battalion - adding three Indian battalions, cavalry, guns, supply and medical troops. Most local soldiers were about ten years older than their counterparts from the British Isles and thus more experienced. Sir Bindon Blood first raised the siege of Fort Malakand, slaughtering thousands of Pathans in the process, then set about destroying their fortified villages and crops until the mullahs and local khans sued for peace. Churchill heard about the Malakand Campaign at Goodwood Race Course and set off at once - 7,000 miles by ship, train and horse - joining the force in time for its advance into the most hostile valley near the Afghan border. In those days it was not uncommon for officers to double as war correspondents and Churchill reported for the Daily Telegraph. Afterwards he turned his letters for the Telegraph about his own combat experience, blended with all the accounts he heard, plus shrewd observations about the locals that stand the test of time, into his splendid book - which General David Petraeus keeps handy.
To the surprise of their allies the US Special Forces have been quietly recruiting local militias. The only caveat I have is that this programme should reflect a commitment to keep Special Forces teams embedded with these militias for many years. Walk away too soon and you leave behind yet another group of bandits for hire by the highest bidder. Afghanistan's president accepts bags of cash from Iranian envoys. Long haul involvement allows you time for weeding out the rotten apples, because there will be plenty. Talk about vetting Afghans is all very well. Until you've tried to establish the facts on the NW Frontier where most people cannot write their own names, birth certificates either don't exist or are forged, where fake documents are a thriving industry, you have no idea how monumental a task any truth seeker faces. According to press reports this Special Forces programme has a hefty $ 800 million budget and therefore the blessing of the Defence Secretary and the White House.
Britain suffers from a phenomenon whereby the most stupid people are drawn to a career in national and local politics. Other countries suffer from the same problem but somehow manage to create very efficient forms of damage control. Switzerland, where local government raises and spends most taxes, cleverly ensures that the best people stay in local politics by giving the people authority over national decisions.
We will take a closer look at the Swiss Army. Although it has not fought a war for 160 years the Swiss are clever people and take their army very seriously. Over recent years it has halved in size; but the Swiss Army still runs through a very few professionals organising 50 times their own number of conscript and part time officers, NCOs and soldiers.
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' When you're on the phone to Downing Street this morning, Adrian, remind the lady who ordered all those ships that she's sending south.'
The late former Prime Minister Jim Callaghan discussing events with Adrian over a coffee in an Ottawa hotel during spring 1982.
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